Four weeks walking on the Camino, from Logrono to Santiago in northern Spain. (I walked from St Jean Pied de Port to Logrono back in June.) An average of seventeen miles a day, across high plains and mountains, rain and shine, legendary cities such as Burgos and Leon, and villages just hanging on in the modern world. Hard on the feet. But I had a path to follow which others before me had followed for 1200 years, and I had a fabled destination, and I could remind myself that the journey was as much the destination as Santiago itself. And there were new friends to make along the way.
Others have been walking longer distances this summer and autumn, with only a vague destination, somewhere north, maybe Germany, a path with no history (following a route usually taken by road, not on foot), where the destination is everything, and the mode of transport a cruel and hard footslog. Whereas on the Camino you’re welcomed by so many, and you’re a little bit of a hero when you arrive in Santiago, on this other journey there’s often hostility, and while for many there’s been a welcome at the end there’s always been the likelihood that borders will be slammed shut.
If you’re walking the Camino you’ve a home to return to, and maybe a minor hero’s welcome there as well. On the other journey, there’s no home to return to. At best it was a camp, and squalor, and at worst home has been destroyed, and family and friends may have been killed.
On the Camino you can absorb the history of 1200 years, you’re following in the footsteps of countless other pilgrims, there’s a physical challenge to drive you along, and an uplift of spirit and a closeness to creation, and to God if we will, as we walk, and St James, Santiago, to welcome us at the cathedral’s Portico de Gloria when we arrive.
For walkers further east, they’re travelling up through the Balkans to find fences at borders and stations closed, and motorways open so that you can exit a country more quickly – on foot. There is no triumph of the spirit (though there is a triumph of the will), and God’s creation in the heat and the rain is hardly benign.
So little in common between the two paths, the two caminos. The one born of personal challenge, the other of desperation. But the comparison is important, and telling.
We Camino walkers need to remember our good fortune.
But there’s one thing the two journeys do have in common. Refugees heading north across Eastern Europe may meet all sorts of hostility, but they’ve also been met with love and warm welcomes by so many, especially in Germany. We’ve seen a triumph of the human spirit, of all that’s best in us. There’s no better way of demonstrating compassion one for another than finding someone a home.
The refugee issue is the hardest issue of our times, reflecting current crises and long-term population issues. But our starting-point at all times has to be compassion. Political solutions are for the medium and longer term. For now, if we lose sight of compassion we lose sight of our basic humanity.